Operation Liberation of Paris

The 'Liberation of Paris' was fought between Allied and German forces for the city of Paris (19/25 August 1944).

The capital of France, Paris had been occupied by Germany since the defeat of France in the 'Battle of France', as signalled bythe signing of the Armistice of 22 June 1940, after which German forces occupied northern and western France.

The liberation began when the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (French Forces of the Interior), which were the military elements of the French resistance movement, staged an uprising against the German garrison upon the approach of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army. On the night of 24 August, elements of Général de Division Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s 2ème Division Blindée made its way into Paris and arrived at the Hôtel de Ville shortly before 00.00. The next morning, 25 August, the bulk of the 2ème Division Blindée, Major General Raymond O. Barton’s US 4th Division and other Allied units entered the city. General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German garrison and the military governor of Paris, surrendered to the French at the Hôtel Le Meurice, the newly established French headquarters. Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader, arrived to assume control of the city as head of the Provisional Government of the French Republic.

The Allied strategy for the defeat of Germany in north-western Europe emphasised the destruction of the German forces retreating from Normandy toward the Rhine river, while the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, led by Henri Rol-Tanguy, staged an uprising in Paris. The 'Battle of the Falaise Pocket' (12.21 August) was still continuing as the final phase of 'Overlord', and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, did not consider the liberation of Paris to be a primary objective for his forces. The goal of the US, British and Canadian forces was, according to Eisenhower, the overwhelming of the German forces, and thereby bring World War II in Europe to an end, which would allow the Allies to concentrate all their efforts in the Far East against the Japanese.

While the French resistance began its rising against the Germans in Paris on 15 August, the Allies were still pushing the Germans toward the Rhine river and wished not to become embroiled in any battle for the liberation of Paris, for they thought that it was still too early to take the French capital. They were aware that Adolf Hitler had ordered the German military to destroy the city completely in the event of an Allied attack, and Paris was universally considered by the Western Allies to possess too great a value, culturally and historically, to risk its destruction. The Western Allies also wished to avoid any protracted battle of attrition such as the 'Battle of Stalingrad' or the 'Siege of Leningrad'. It was also estimated that, in the event of a siege, some 3,600 tons of food per day, as well as significant amounts of building materials, manpower and engineering skill, would be required to feed the population after the liberation of Paris. Basic utilities would also need to be restored, and transportation systems rebuilt. The commitment of these supplies would prevent their despatch to other areas of the Allied war effort.

de Gaulle was concerned that military rule by Allied forces would be implemented in France within the implementation of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories used in and after World War II. This administration, which had been planned by the US chiefs-of-Staff Committee, had been approved by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt but been opposed by Eisenhower. Nevertheless, de Gaulle, upon learning the French resistance had risen up against the German occupiers, and unwilling to allow his countrymen to be slaughtered as was happening to the Polish resistance in the 'Warsaw Uprising', petitioned for an immediate frontal assault. He threatened to detach the 2ème Division Blindée and order it into a single-handed attack the German forces in Paris, bypassing the SHAEF chain of command, if Eisenhower unduly delayed approval.

On 15 August, in the north-eastern Parisian suburb of Pantin, 1,654 men (among them 168 captured Allied airmen), all political prisoners, were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and and 546 women to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, on what was to be the last convoy to Germany. Pantin had been the area of Paris from which the Germans had entered the capital in June 1940. On that same day, employees of the Paris Métro, the gendarmerie and the police went on strike, with postal workers following on the next day. They were soon joined by workers across the city, and a general strike began on 18 August.

On 17 August, concerned that the Germans were placing explosives at strategic points around the city, Pierre Taittinger, the chairman of the municipal council, met von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris. When von Choltitz told him that he intended to slow the Allied advance as much as possible, Taittinger and Raoul Nordling, the neutral Swedish consul, tried to persuade von Choltitz not to destroy Paris.

All over France, from the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Radiodiffusion Nationale, the latter being the Free French broadcaster, the population knew of the Allies' advance toward Paris after the end of the 'Battle of Normandy'. The Radiodiffusion Nationale had been in the hands of the Vichy French propaganda minister, Philippe Henriot, since November 1942, but the Free French had created a rival of the same name after de Gaulle had signed an ordonnance in Algiers on 4 April 1944.

On 19 August, continuing their retreat to the east, columns of German vehicles moved down the Avenue des Champs Élysées. Posters calling citizens to arm had previously been pasted on walls by Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur members. These posters called for a general mobilisation of the Parisians, arguing that 'the war continues' and calling on the Parisian police, the Republican Guard, the gendarmerie, the Garde Mobile, the Groupe Mobile de Réserve (the police units replacing the army) and patriotic Frenchmen ('all men from 18 to 50 able to carry a weapon') to join 'the struggle against the invader'. Other posters assured that 'victory is near' and promised 'chastisement for the traitors', i.e. Vichy loyalists and collaborators. The posters were signed by the 'Parisian Committee of the Liberation', in agreement with the Provisional Government of the French Republic, and under the orders of 'Regional Chief Colonel Rol' (Henri Rol-Tanguy), the commander of the French Forces of the Interior in the Ile de France. The first skirmishes between the French and the German occupiers then began. Small mobile units of the Red Cross moved into the city to assist French and German wounded. That same day, the Germans detonated a barge filled with mines in Pantin, and this set on fire many of the mills which supplied Paris with its flour.

On 20 August, as barricades began to appear on the streets of Paris, resistance fighters organised themselves to sustain a siege. Trucks were positioned, trees were cut down and trenches were dug in the pavement to free paving stones for further consolidation of the barricades. These materials were moved in wooden carts hauled by men, women and children. Fuel trucks were attacked and captured. Civilian vehicles were commandeered, painted with camouflage, marked with the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur emblem and used to transport ammunition and orders from one barricade to another. The skirmishing peaked on 22 August, when some German units tried to leave their positions. At 09.00 on 23 August, under von Choltitz’s orders, the Germans opened fire on the Grand Palais, which was a Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur stronghold, and German tanks fired at the barricades in the streets. Hitler gave the order to inflict maximum damage on the city. An estimated 800 to 1,000 resistance fighters were killed during the battle for Paris, and another 1,500 were wounded.[14]

On 24 August, delayed by combat and poor roads, Leclerc de Hauteclocque, commander of the 2ème Division Blindée, which operated US-made equipment including M4 Sherman medium tanks, half-tracked vehicles and trucks, disobeyed his direct superior, Major General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of the US V Corps, and sent a vanguard (the Colonne 'Dronne') to Paris with the message that the entire division would be there on the following day. The column took the form of the 9ème Compagnie of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad, nicknamed 'La Nueve' (Spanish for 'the nine') and comprising 160 men of whom 146 were Spanish republicans. The column was led by Capitaine Raymond Dronne, who became the second uniformed Allied officer to enter Paris after the Spanish Amado Granell of 'La Nueve'. At 21.22 on the night of 24 August, the 9ème Compagnie entered the of Paris by the Porte d’Italie and, on entering the town hall square, fired the first rounds at a large group of German infantry and machine gunners. Civilians went out to the street and sang 'La Marseillaise'. Dronne went to the von Choltitz’s command centre and requested a German the surrender.

The US 4th Division also entered Paris through the Porte d’Italie in the early hours of the next day. The leading US regiments covered the right flank of the 2ème Division Blindée, turned to the east at the Place de la Bastille and made their way along the Avenue Daumesnil toward the Bois de Vincennes. In the afternoon the British 30 Assault Unit, an intelligence-gathering element, entered Paris via the Porte d’Orléans and then searched buildings for vital intelligence, later capturing the former headquarters of Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, the Château de la Muette.

While awaiting the final capitulation, the 9ème Compagnie attacked the Chamber of Deputies, the Hôtel Majestic and the Place de la Concorde. At 15.30 on 25 August, the German garrison of Paris surrendered and the Allies took prisoner von Choltitz even as other French units entered the capital.

Near the end of the battle, resistance groups brought Allied airmen and other men who had been hidden in suburban towns such as Montlhéry into central Paris, and here they witnessed the ragged end of the capital’s occupation, de Gaulle’s triumphal arrival, and the claim of 'One France' liberated by the Free French and the resistance. The 2ème Division Blindée had suffered the loss of 71 men killed and 225 wounded, and its matériel losses included 35 tanks, six self-propelled guns and 111 other vehicles.

Despite Hitler’s repeated orders that the French capital 'must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete debris', which was to be accomplished by bombing and the destruction of its bridges, von Choltitz surrendered on 25 August at the Hôtel Meurice. He was then driven to the Paris Police Prefecture where he signed the official surrender, and finally to the Gare Montparnasse, the railway station in which Leclerc de Hauteclocque had established his command post, to sign the surrender of the German troops in Paris.

On 25 August de Gaulle moved into the War Ministry on the Rue St Dominique, and made a rousing speech to the crowd from the Hôtel de Ville, notably downplaying the part played in the battle by the US 4th Division.

The day after de Gaulle’s speech, the 2ème Division Blindée paraded down the Champs Elysées. A few German snipers were still active, and some of these fired from rooftops in the Hôtel de Crillon area at the crowd while de Gaulle marched down the Champs Elysées and entered the Place de la Concorde.

On 29 August, Brigadier General Norman D. Cota’s US 28th Division, which had assembled in the Bois de Boulogne during the previous night, paraded 24-abreast up the Avenue Hoche to the Arc de Triomphe, then down the Champs Elysées. Joyous crowds greeted the Americans as the entire division, both men and vehicles, marched through Paris 'on its way to assigned attack positions northeast of the French capital'.

Even as the liberation was taking place, it had become clear that food in Paris was becoming scarcer by the day. The French railway network had largely been destroyed by Allied bombing, so the delivery of food into the city had become a major problem, especially as the Germans stripped Paris of its resources for themselves. The Allies realised the necessity of getting Paris back on its feet and created a plan for food convoys to get through to the capital as soon as possible. In addition, surrounding towns and villages were requested to supply as much to Paris as possible. The civil affairs branch of SHAEF authorised the import of up to 2,400 tons of food per day at the expense of the military effort. A British food convoy labelled 'Vivres Pour Paris' entered on 29 August and US supplies were flown in via Orléans airfield before being trucked into the city. Some 500 tons per day were delivered by the British and another 500 tons by the Americans. Aided by French civilians outside Paris bringing in local produce, the food crisis was overcome within 10 days.

The uprising in Paris gave the newly established Free French government and its president, de Gaulle, enough prestige and authority to establish a provisional French republic. This replaced the fallen Vichy French state and united the politically divided and disparate elements of the French resistance, drawing Gaullists, nationalists, communists and anarchists into a new government of 'national unanimity'.

de Gaulle was swift to emphasise the role that the French had played in the liberation, and pressed the need for the French people to do their 'war duty' by advancing into the Benelux countries and Germany. de Gaulle clearly wished France to be among 'the victors', a belief that they escaped the fate of having a new constitution imposed by the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories, such as those that would be established in Germany and Japan in 1945.

Although Paris had been liberated, there was still heavy fighting elsewhere in France. Large portions of the country were still occupied after the successful 'Dragoon' landings in southern France, which extended into the south-western region of the Vosges mountains from 15 August to 14 September. Fighting went on in Alsace and Lorraine in eastern France during the last months of 1944 until the early months of 1945.

Several alleged Vichy French loyalists involved in the Milice, a paramilitary militia established by SS-Sturmbannführer Joseph Darnand and which worked alongside the Gestapo in hunting the resistance, were made prisoners in a post-liberation purge known as the 'Épuration légale' (Legal purge). Some were executed without trial, while women accused of 'horizontal collaboration' because of alleged sexual relationships with Germans were arrested and had their heads shaved, were publicly exhibited and in some cases were allowed to be mauled by mobs.

On 17 August, the Germans took Pierre Laval, the prime minister of Vichy France, to Belfort. On 20 August, under German military escort, Maréchal de France Philippe Pétain, the Vichy French head of state, was forcibly moved to Belfort, and to the Sigmaringen enclave in Germany on 7 September. Here he was joined by 1,000 of his followers. They established the government of Sigmaringen, challenging the legitimacy of de Gaulle’s provisional government. To signal his forced move, Pétain refused to take office, and was eventually replaced by Fernand de Brinon. The Vichy French government-in-exile ended in April 1945.